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Newsline - May 10, 2007

Russian police on May 10 arrested two people suspected of concealing a powerful bomb containing 20 kilograms of plastic explosives and an unknown amount of ball bearings in a car parked in southwest Moscow, the television channel Vesti-24 reported. The bomb was found and defused on May 8, ahead of the city's May 9 Victory Day celebrations, Interfax reported. Initial reports said that police have arrested at least two men who are believed to be from the North Caucasus. Further details of the arrests were unclear. Police officials have not said what the possible target of the bomb might have been and how they learned about a possible terrorist attack. Interfax said the bomb could have been activated in minutes. NTV television reported that police also found a Kalashnikov assault rifle in the car. FF

Eleven activists from the opposition coalition The Other Russia have been held by police officials in the city of Samara for the last two days, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 10. The Samara authorities have rejected a request by The Other Russia to stage a march in the city center on May 18, the second day of a summit meeting of Russian and European Union leaders. The summit will take place in the Volga River resort of Volzhsky Utyos, near Samara. Among the activists held are the main organizers of the demonstrations. City officials have cited road repairs along the proposed route and inconvenient timing as reasons for the denial, Interfax reported. "The Moscow Times" on May 10 quoted Alexander Rahr, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, as saying that "the May Russia-EU summit is going to be the most difficult since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The agenda is completely overloaded with negative issues." Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov on May 8 sharply criticized the EU Energy Charter and Estonia. Mironov said he opposes the Energy Charter Treaty and that Russia should continue to refuse to ratify it. Mironov also took a swipe at the EU for raising concerns about democracy under President Vladimir Putin. "We cannot accept others teaching us democracy or how to live our lives," he was quoted as saying. FF

Traffic across a bridge linking Russia and Estonia has been restricted, RIA Novosti reported on May 10. The bridge across the Narva River connects the Estonian town of Narva with Ivangorod in Russia and is a major customs and border-crossing point, with around 150,000-200,000 trucks crossing it each year. RIA Novosti quoted Valentin Sidorin, head of the Leningrad Oblast administration press service, as saying that the bridge has been closed for trucks with capacity over 3.5 tons due to its unsafe condition. Sidorin added that the decision to close the bridge was made by the federal authorities. The move follows the decision of Russian Railways earlier this week to cancel the St. Petersburg-Tallinn train service, citing financial considerations and is at odds with the Russian Economic Development and Trade Ministry announcement on May 8 that Moscow has no plans to limit trade with Estonia. Russian politicians have demanded economic measures in retaliation for the recent relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial from the center of Tallinn. FF

On the eve of President Putin's visit to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Russian officials and oil and gas experts have repeatedly underlined the importance of Central Asia to Russian energy policy, the financial daily "Vedomosti" and "The Moscow Times" reported on May 10. "Central Asia is one of the most important parts of our energy policy," Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Andrei Reus was quoted as saying. State-run Gazprom relies on Turkmen gas to fulfill its supply contracts, as production at home stagnates and energy demand across Europe grows. Gazprom officials are part of Putin's delegation that left Moscow on May 9. The United States and the European Union, meanwhile, hope that new Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will consider a longstanding proposal to build a gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan that would link up with the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas-export pipeline bypassing Russia. "Vedomosti" quoted Russian government sources as saying that this project does not meet Russia's interests and the Russian delegation will lobby hard to convince Turkmenistan to accept a Russian alternative project. "Vedomosti" quoted Farkhat Ilyasov, consultant of the Imma Group, as saying that the U.S.-backed Trans-Caspian project does not meet the interests of Kazakhstan either. Ilyasov said that if Moscow does persuade Turkmenistan to choose its version of the project, Turkmenistan is most likely to gain political and economic guarantees from Russia in return. The daily quoted another expert, Sergei Mikheyev, from the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, as saying that the Kremlin can guarantee Turkmenistan stable transit of gas through its territory, compared with the riskier Caspian route, as well as crucial political support for Berdymukhammedov. FF

President Putin on May 10 signed a decree dismissing Amur Oblast Governor Leonid Korotkov as no longer enjoying the president's trust, according to the Kremlin press service. Interfax reported that Putin appointed Aleksander Nesterenko, one of Korotkov's deputies, as acting governor. Nesterenko, 59, is an agronomist who was born in the oblast and graduated from agricultural college in the capital, Blagoveshchensk. Prosecutors opened an investigation last month into Korotkov's activities, and on May 2 he was formally charged with abuse of his official position for having raised electricity tariffs to cover 41 million rubles ($1.59 million) in losses incurred by a local soccer club (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). Some 20 members of the oblast legislature have written to President Putin asking him to put a halt to negative speculation in the Russian media about the actions of the oblast executive branch, according to the daily "Kommersant" on May 5. Ekho Moskvy said that Korotkov is the first regional governor appointed and subsequently fired by Putin. FF/LF

Police used truncheons and tear gas on May 9 against some of the several thousand participants in an election rally in Yerevan jointly convened by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun, Aram Karapetian's Nor Zhamanakner, and Aylentrank (Alternative), Noyan Tapan reported the following day. Some demonstrators were detained briefly but then released. Former Yerevan Mayor Vahagn Khachatrian told the gathering that there is no longer any alternative to the impeachment of the current leadership. Sargsian warned that if the May 12 parliamentary elections are falsified, the bloc will convene a mass demonstration on May 13 on Freedom Square in Yerevan "to decide what to do next," Interfax reported. Demonstration participants marched to the National Security Ministry building to protest the detention of Karabakh war veterans Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian and of former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian. Also on May 9, Arzoumanian's lawyer Hovik Arsenian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the authorities do not have sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges of money laundering against Arzoumanian and will probably release him from detention later this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7 and 9, 2007). LF

Speaking on May 9 at a military parade in Stepanakert to mark the 15th anniversary of the capture by Karabakh Armenian forces of the Karabakh town of Shushi, Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, argued that the Karabakh population "has the right to a final say in determining our future," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Nagorno-Karabakh is not directly represented at the ongoing talks on resolving the conflict mediated by the OSCE's Minsk Group, but the Armenian leadership has repeatedly said it will not sign any peace agreement that is unacceptable to Karabakh. And the Minsk Group draft peace proposal currently under discussion reportedly provides for holding a referendum among Karabakh's population on the region's ultimate status vis-a-vis Azerbaijan's central government. Speaking in Baku on May 4, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claimed that Yerevan has agreed to a withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Karabakh, after which a decision will be made on what degree of "autonomy" Nagorno-Karabakh should have within Azerbaijan. Aliyev made no mention of any referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). The Minsk Group cochairs are scheduled to meet in Madrid on May 10, reported on May 8, and the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers are to meet on May 11 in Strasbourg on the sidelines of a session of the Council of Europe's Council of Foreign Ministers to continue their discussion of the draft peace proposal, according to on May 8. LF

OCSE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos issued a statement on May 9 condemning the behavior during a standoff with peacekeepers and unarmed OSCE observers in the South Ossetian conflict zone on May 7 of men who claimed to be South Ossetian militia. The men opened fire and threatened the peacekeepers after the latter discovered an antiaircraft gun in the conflict zone. In Tbilisi, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze accused South Ossetia on May 9 of repeatedly rejecting Georgia's peace initiatives, Caucasus Press reported. Also on May 9, Georgian Minister for Refugees Giorgi Kheviashvili was detained for an hour by South Ossetian peacekeepers and then released after losing his way while returning from a concert organized for South Ossetia's Georgian minority to mark Victory Day, Caucasus Press reported on May 10. LF

Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergei Kiriyenko and Kazakhstan's Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Ezmukhambetov signed an agreement in Astana on May 10 to establish an international uranium enrichment center, Interfax reported. The agreement was signed in the presence of visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev. The center will be located in Siberia and process nuclear fuel for unspecified foreign countries. Interfax quoted Putin as saying that Russia "considers the document the first step in the implementation of our initiative to create a global nuclear energy infrastructure." FF/RG

According to new figures released on May 9 by a regional HIV/AIDS clinic in Kazakhstan's southern Sayram district, three more children in the district have been diagnosed with HIV, bringing the total number of cases to 111, Interfax reported. The healthcare center also reported that a total of 14 mothers in the district have now contracted the virus. The HIV/AIDS outbreak in southern Kazakhstan, which is believed to have been caused by tainted blood transfusions, began in 2006 and has claimed the lives of eight children. Twenty-one people are on trial in connection with the outbreak. The country's chief epidemiologist, Anatolii Belonog, warned in February that the spread of HIV/AIDS could soon threaten the country's national security, as the number of new HIV cases continues to grow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). RG

An unnamed official of the Tajik Prosecutor-General’s Office announced on May 8 that the criminal investigation into eight suspects arrested for attempting to smuggle radioactive materials has been completed, according to the Avesta website. The Prosecutor-General's Office will now formally seek a criminal indictment in order to convene a trial. The suspects were detained in late 2006 after they attempted to sell "three small containers containing plutonium-beryllium, and one container containing cesium-137" for $400,000 to "a Kazakh national and a citizen of an Arab country." Two of the suspects are retired officers from the Tajik ministries of defense and internal affairs. Tajikistan's security forces have been particularly attentive to the threat posed by the proliferation of radioactive material since the March 2004 arrest of an Uzbek citizen carrying a small amount of weapons-grade plutonium (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," March 23, 2004). RG

Addressing a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on May 8 called for a significant opening of the country's energy sector to foreign investors, according to the official state website. Following a discussion of the first-quarter results from the government’s economic reforms, and reviews of ministry reports on the energy and transport sectors, Berdymukhammedov stressed the need to attract far greater foreign investment and to more actively "cooperate with other countries" in developing the country’s oil sector. RG

Alyaksandr Lukashenka led a march of some 6,000 World War II veterans in Minsk on May 9 to mark the 62nd anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory in the war, Belapan reported. In a speech during a wreath-laying ceremony on Victory Square, Lukashenka condemned the "present claimants to world domination who try to use warfare as a tool of foreign policy, advance their geopolitical and predatory economic interests with the help of force, and oppress the states that have embarked on an independent path of development." Lukashenka continued, "In violation of international treaties and agreements, the NATO military and political bloc is expanding and deploying new military bases near the borders of peace-loving countries and, in the first instance, near our borders." He also noted that the "so-called partisans of democracy" have repeatedly attempted to provoke a new colored revolution against "our quiet Belarus," but stressed that "these subversive tactics" have been resolutely rejected by the Belarusian people. JM

Viktor Yushchenko has signed a decree dismissing Constitutional Court Judge Volodymyr Ivashchenko for a "breach of oath," the presidential press service reported on its website,, on May 10. Ivashchenko was appointed to the 18-member panel by former President Leonid Kuchma in 2001. In early May, Yushchenko sacked two other Constitutional Court judges, Syuzanna Stanik and Valeriy Pshenichnyy, also charging that they violated their oaths (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2006). Meanwhile, Constitutional Court spokesman Ivan Avramov told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website,, on May 10 that the court continues to examine the constitutionality of Yushchenko's April 2 decree that dissolved the Verkhovna Rada and scheduled early elections for May 27. According to Avramov, the court has not yet begun an examination of Yuschenko's decree of April 26, in which he rescheduled early polls for June 24. JM

Speaking at a wreath-laying ceremony in Kyiv on May 9 to mark Victory Day, President Yushchenko called for the recognition of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) veterans as combatants of World War II, Ukrainian media reported. The UPA, established by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in 1942, fought both Soviet and Polish guerrillas as well as German troops in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, pursuing the ideal of an independent Ukraine. UPA fighters also fought against Soviet and Polish troops after the end of World War II. UPA commander Roman Shukhevych was killed in a skirmish in western Ukraine in 1950, while OUN leader Stepan Bander was poisoned by a Soviet KGB agent in Germany in 1959. "The time has come to tell each other in an honest and brotherly manner that everyone who has fought for Ukraine deserves eternal respect and thankfulness. Therefore I believe the endeavour to settle the legal status of those who fought for Ukraine and its independence in 1917-24, 1928-39 and 1941-56 will at last be completed and embodied in life," Interfax-Ukraine quoted Yushchenko as saying on May 9. JM

In an interview on national television on May 9, Serbia's new parliamentary speaker, Tomislav Nikolic, raised the possibility of imposing a state of emergency in the country. Nikolic, whose election has thrown Serbian politics into turmoil and raised concerns across Europe at a resurgence of Serbian nationalism, said that a state of emergency is one way of preventing new elections being triggered on May 14, when the constitution requires new elections to be called if no government has been formed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). The power to dissolve parliament lies in the hands of the president, but Nikolic said a state of emergency proposed by the government and backed by parliament could put a hold on the president's constitutional requirement to call new elections. Nikolic linked such a move to the "difficult situation" in Kosova, which Serbia is seeking to prevent from gaining independence through a resolution by the UN Security Council. New elections would probably be held in mid-July, and Western powers are hoping to bring a resolution to the Security Council in May, while the United States holds the council's chairmanship. Nikolic also said "I am against joining the European Union." He already called on May 8 for Serbia to look to Russia rather than to the EU or to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). AG

Little more than a day remains for Serbia's political parties to nominate a new prime minister, and media reports from Serbia give no indication of a late breakthrough. Following the election on May 8 of the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Nikolic, as speaker of parliament, President Boris Tadic wrote to leaders of four nationalist parties setting May 11 as the deadline for them to propose a prime minister. That would then give them one ordinary working day in which to win a vote of confidence in parliament, as the constitution requires a government to be formed by May 14. Three and a half months of talks between the country's non-authoritarian parties broke down on May 6, and hopes they might be revived appear to have been buried on May 8, when the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and its coalition partner, New Serbia (NS), supported Nikolic's nomination to the post of parliamentary speaker (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). Nikolic on May 8 categorically ruled out forging a government now, and there has been no indication that his Serbian Radical Party, the DSS-NS, and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) founded by Serbia's late authoritarian leader Slobodan Milosevic are on the verge of doing so. AG

Kosovar Albanian politicians from the president downward have expressed disappointment at the election of Nikolic, but, local news agencies report, they do not believe his new influence will affect Kosova's bid for independence. Xhavit Beqiri, a spokesman for President Fatmir Sejdiu, said Nikolic's election is proof that Serbian politics are backward-looking, particularly with respect to Kosova, the news service KosovaLive reported on May 8. Hashim Thaci, a prominent guerrilla leader in the 1998-99 conflict and now a leading opposition figure, said that Nikolic's election was bad for Serbia, for the region, and for Kosova's ethnic Serbs. The Kosovar Albanian press has given little coverage to events in Belgrade. Only three of the nine leading Kosovar Albanian papers put Nikolic's election on the front page on May 9. On May 10, just one had a front-page report, while political developments in Belgrade featured on the inside pages of another three. News coverage was instead dominated by shame at the involvement of ethnic Albanians in an alleged plot to attack a U.S. army camp in New Jersey, and by the latest news and speculation about the progress toward a UN resolution on the future of the province. AG

Rada Trajkovic, the normally hard-line deputy leader of the Serbian National Council of Kosovo, called the "coalition of the Democratic Party of Serbia and the Serbian Radical Party a sure road to disaster in Serbia," the news service KosovaLive reported on May 9. The SRS has ruled out forming a government with the DSS, but Nikolic's election was possible only with the support of the DSS. Trajkovic said that Serbia's political scene increasingly resembles that of 1998 and 1999, "which means that they will bring nothing good to the Serbian people and the Serbian state, especially not to Serbs living in Kosovo." Dragisa Krstovic, a prominent figure in the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija, one of the Kosovar Serbs' parliamentary parties, said he was disappointed by Nikolic's election, KosovaLive reported on May 8. Concern among local Serbs had already been rising following the formation on May 5 of a militia group in Serbia to prevent Kosova from gaining independence from Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30 and May 7, 2007). In a May 8 report by the Balkan website Balkan Insight, Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate Kosovar Serb leader, warned that "the consequences may be fatal for the remaining Serbs in Kosovo because the initiative could be used as an excuse to launch a fresh wave of violence against them." AG

Montenegro on May 8 joined the growing list of countries to express concern over the Serbian parliament's election of the radical nationalist Nikolic as speaker. A spokesman of the country's ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), Rajko Kovacevic, told the Mina news agency that Nikolic's election is taking Serbia "in the wrong direction" because "ultranationalism and European integration are incompatible." He called for "the democratic bloc of Serbian political forces" -- a reference to the DS, DSS-NS, and the G17+ bloc -- to form a government. However, Nikolic found support among Montenegro's Serbs. The head of Montenegro's second-largest party, Andrija Mandic of the Serbian People's Party (SNS), hailed Nikolic's new power, saying he expects Nikolic to unite the Belgrade parliament "at this moment when the decisive battle for Kosovo to remain within the borders of Serbia is being fought." Mina also quoted Mandic as predicting that "the problems of Serbs outside Serbia would be heard more clearly in the Serbian assembly," adding, "We must realize that we are fighting a joint battle, regardless of whether it is in Belgrade, Podgorica, Pristina, or Banja Luka, and this battle will only yield results if we keep each other informed and if we do not turn away from the problems of our people." AG

Croatia's President Stipe Mesic on May 8 urged parliamentary speaker Nikolic to abandon territorial claims on Croatia, Croatian national television reported the same day. The leader of Nikolic's party, Vojislav Seselj, who is currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has called for Serbia to move its border with Croatia far into Croatian territory, to Virovitica and Karlobag. Mesic said that he agrees with Serbian members of parliament that Nikolic "can successfully head the parliament... but on one condition: that he should forget the Virovitica-Karlovac-Karlobag boundary. If he manages to forget that, then maybe we will be able to cooperate." Croatia's foreign minister, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, said that "radicalism has no future," and that "Croatia wants to see Serbia on the path of resolving open issues, a Serbia with open European prospects, and Serbia as a future member of the EU and NATO." The country's political parties generally expressed disappointment at Nikolic's election but stressed the desire for cooperation. However, Pero Kovacevic of the right-wing Croatian Party of Rights (HSP) said he was not surprised, adding that events in Belgrade suggest that Zagreb "should be very careful about joining all those Balkan and other associations into which Europe is pushing us." AG

In the most prominent statement by a Bosnian politician, a spokeswoman for the Croat member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member presidency, Zeljko Komsic, told Fena news agency on May 8 that the election of Nikolic is "bad news for Serbia" but comes as no surprise, since January's parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for the far right and conservatives. Komsic predicted that Nikolic's election will have no impact on the political climate in Bosnia. There has been no comment by senior Bosnian Serb politicians. The prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has in the past called for Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to give themselves up to the ICTY and has acknowledged that the massacre at Srebrenica was an "act of genocide," both positions that distance him from that of Nikolic's Serbian Radical Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and March 15, 2007). AG

Rear Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, who heads EU troops stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR), said on May 7 that Montenegro has signed an agreement that allows "EUFOR transit through Montenegro by road and air, with a very short notification period, in order to be able to send reinforcements to NATO forces in Kosovo if any urgent need should arise," Montenegrin national television reported the same day. Montenegrin Foreign Minister Milan Rocen described the deal simply as an update of an existing agreement, but it highlights the international community's preparations for possible violence in Kosova, underscores Montenegro's deepening relationship with Western military structures, and risks accentuating tensions arising from the government's position on the future of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and May 1, 2007). Podgorica has consistently called for a "viable" solution for Kosova and said it will not take sides in the dispute, while ethnic-Serbian parties have submitted a resolution to parliament urging the Montenegrin government to endorse Serbian and Russian efforts to keep Kosova part of Serbia. AG

An appeals court within the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on May 9 reduced an 18-year sentence against a Bosnian Serb wartime commander, Vidoje Blagojevic, to 15 years, international and regional media reported the same day. Blagojevic was found guilty of war crimes and complicity in genocide in 2005. The appeals court cleared him of complicity in the genocide at Srebrenica on the grounds that he had no knowledge of that 1995 massacre and only provided logistical support. AG

Norwegian police have arrested a Bosnian Muslim suspected of committing war crimes during the 1992-95 conflict, international and regional media reported on May 8 and 9. Officials refused to name him, or to provide details of the arrest. However, they said he will be charged with illegal detention, aggravated assault, and rape committed at a prison camp for ethnic Serbs. He was reportedly serving with an ethnic-Croatian paramilitary unit at the time of the alleged crimes, which took place between May and September 1992. Subsequently, in 1993, he took his family to Norway, where he gained citizenship in 2001. He faces 21 years in jail if found guilty in what a Norwegian prosecutor, Jan Eirik Thomassen, told dpa is probably "the first war crimes case in Norway" involving a Norwegian national since trials held in the aftermath of World War II. Norwegian authorities have said they estimated that some 50 alleged war criminals from the Balkans might be living in the country, dpa reported. AG

The trial of a Kosovar Albanian deported from Sweden began in Kosova on May 9, AFP reported. Idriz Gashi is charged with "war crimes against a civilian population and aggravated murder" in a case that centers on the killing in August 1998 of an ethnic-Albanian woman for her alleged collaboration with Serbs. Sweden arrested Gashi in May 2006 at the request of UN authorities in Kosova and deported him in October. His case is being heard by UN-appointed judges. War crimes cases are also being heard by five district courts in Kosova, but the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has expressed concern about a range of related issues, including the protection of witnesses. AG

EUFOR troops on May 7 raided the home of a Bosnian Serb suspected of helping Bosnian Serb wartime leader Karadzic, EUFOR said in a statement on May 7. EUFOR said Vojislav Topalovic "is suspected of being a member of the Karadzic support network." Topalovic is a former member of the parliament in the Serb-dominated autonomous region of Republika Srpska. Similar raids in 2007 have targeted businessmen in Bosnia, members of Karadzic's family in Bosnia, and his extended family in Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 20, and March 8 and 19, 2007). Karadzic has eluded all international efforts to capture him since 1995, and there has been no indication that recent raids have brought security services closer to identifying his whereabouts. AG

Clifford Bond, the international envoy for Srebrenica, on May 8 started a weeklong visit to the eastern Bosnian town, his first since being appointed on May 3, local media reported. Bond, a career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia between 2001 and 2004, was picked by the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, to coordinate international activities relating to Srebrenica. Schwarz-Schilling, Bosnia's central prime minister, and the prime ministers of its two autonomous regions agreed in late April to set up a commission to coordinate their efforts regarding Srebrenica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). The town's difficult economic and social conditions, particularly for Bosnian Muslim returnees, were highlighted after the International Court of Justice in The Hague found in February that the 1995 massacre there amounted to genocide. That judgment that sparked calls for Srebrenica to be removed from the jurisdiction of the Republika Srpska, but the international community rejects that option and insists on the continued validity of the 1995 Dayton peace settlement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28 and March 2, 7, 15, 21, and 27 and April 26, 2007). The international community is contemplating economic measures to complement an assistance package put together by the Republika Srpska authorities, who have declared the town a special economic zone and pledged to upgrade its infrastructure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and April 10, 2007). However, while status questions are outside his mandate, the new envoy will not only deal with economic issues. Referring to the returnees in Srebrenica, Bond told the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne novine" of May 9, "we need to listen to all of their problems, not just infrastructure, but also in the fields of security, justice, and education." TV

Sunni Ultimatum Rocks Iraqi Prime Minister's Position
Last week U.S. lawmakers expressed anger at the Iraqi government's plan to take a two-month summer recess. The summer recess, starting in July, would most probably occur before the government is able to take crucial steps to ease sectarian tensions.

The passage of a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil revenues and amendments to the Iraqi constitution to mollify Sunni fears of exclusion are considered by the U.S. administration two of the most important "benchmarks" of progress for the Iraqi government.

During a May 7 interview with CNN, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, issued a stark ultimatum to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He said if al-Maliki's government does not implement key amendments to the Iraqi Constitution by May 15, he will resign and call on the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament with 44 seats, to withdraw from parliament.

"If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," al-Hashimi warned.

Al-Hashimi complained that the government is excluding Sunni Arabs from the decision-making process. Specifically, he demanded constitutional guarantees that would prevent Iraq splitting into Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Sunni federal states, a possibility that he believes would leave Sunni Arabs at a great disadvantage. The majority of Iraq's oil wealth is in the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south, leaving the Sunni Arabs with the resource-poor heartland.

The issue of constitutional amendments is crucial to Sunnis within the government. Sunni Arabs were reluctant to join the post-Saddam Hussein political process, and many were finally convinced to vote in the December 2005 elections by promises of future changes to the constitution. However, almost 18 months after those elections, the constitution has not been revised, creating the impression among Sunnis that they have been duped.

While the withdrawal of the Iraqi Accordance Front would not lead to the collapse of al-Maliki's government, it would be seen as a major blow to the national-reconciliation process. If moderate Sunnis like al-Hashimi who gave the political process a chance decided to withdraw their support, extremist Sunni factions who were considering putting down their weapons and entering the political process would be unlikely to do so. In fact, those extremist elements would likely harden their resolve if they conclude there is no realistic alternative to armed resistance.

The other key issue looming for al-Maliki is the adoption of a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil revenues.

In February, the cabinet approved a draft law, and after much protracted negotiation, the bill seemed ready to be sent to the Iraqi Parliament for ratification. However, even as the parliament takes up the draft law for debate, the Kurds have expressed grave misgivings about it. At the heart of the opposition are the annexes to the draft law by the central government that relate to the role of the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) and its control over most of Iraq's proven reserves.

Kurdish Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami has said that under the draft, the INOC would have jurisdiction of more than 93 percent of Iraq's known petroleum reserves, leaving only 7 percent to the regional governments -- including the Kurdish region government.

Kurdish officials pointed out that the original draft endorsed by the Iraqi cabinet, which includes Kurdish members, did not have the technical annexes. He said the additions violate the February agreement.

Kurdish officials said ceding virtually all of Iraq's known oil fields to the state-run INOC is unconstitutional, and vowed to oppose it in parliament. The Kurdish Alliance, with 58 out of 275 seats in parliament, does not have enough votes to defeat the bill, but their opposition could delay its passage indefinitely, thereby increasing the strain on the Baghdad government.

The failure to push through the petroleum legislation would be a huge embarrassment to the al-Maliki government. In early April, Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani was optimistic enough to declare that it was "achievable to pass the [oil] law within two months, since all political parties are in favor."

The snag with the hydrocarbon bill further underscores al-Maliki's overall eroding support. With the departure of the Al-Fadilah Party from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in March and the resignation of six ministers from Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc in April, al-Maliki seems increasingly isolated. If the Kurdish Alliance, too, decides to withdraw, that would seriously undermine the al-Maliki government.

In the wake of the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings, this political turmoil comes at a particularly delicate time. Although no major breakthroughs were made at the meetings, the international community did pledge $30 billion in financial commitments for Iraq through debt relief, loans, and grants. But Sunni Arab states -- most prominently Saudi Arabia -- called on Iraq to enact political reforms, essentially a hint that the Shi'ite-led government is not doing enough to reach out to disaffected Sunnis.

However, al-Maliki may be placed in an untenable position. His Shi'ite allies have balked at the constitutional reforms demanded by Sunnis and a de-Ba'athification law that would allow former members of the Hussein regime to return to their government positions.

Nevertheless, the threat of a Sunni walkout does not cast al-Maliki's government in a favorable light in the eyes of Iraq's Sunni neighbors or in the international community. While it is unlikely that support for Iraq's leadership will end, there may be growing calls for new leadership as al-Maliki is increasingly viewed as incapable of delivering a political solution to the current crisis.

Helmand Province Governor Asadullah Wafa on May 9 said that 21 civilians have been killed in air strikes in the province's Sangin district, presumably carried out by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Wafa said that women and children were among the fatalities. A local resident placed the death toll at 32. Meanwhile, a website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- reported on May 9 that 50 residents of Sangin were "martyred" and hundreds of homes were destroyed in "American bombardment." However, statement posted on the ISAF website on May 9 said that "contrary to some press reports, ISAF is unaware, at this time, of any NATO air strikes resulting in civilian casualties." On May 8, a U.S. commander apologized and offered compensation for the deaths of more than a dozen people in eastern Afghanistan in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). AT

Residents of Sangin district killed a local Taliban commander and three of his men on May 9, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Dad Mohammad, a member of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) from Sangin, told AIP that people in his constituency asked Taliban commander Hajji Mohammad Wali to leave the region because the Taliban presence in the area was provoking military bombardment. According to Dad Mohammad, the Taliban commander replied, "We are fighting in 30 countries. We can fight you as well." Local people from the Toran, Malzai, Balozi, and Heratian areas then came together and killed Mohammad Wali and three of his men, disarming the remaining fighters. Unconfirmed reports from Sangin indicate that "people have killed more Taliban," Dad Mohammad told AIP. He added that the Taliban are "collecting people from various districts to avenge [Mohammad] Wali Khan's murder," increasing "the likelihood of fighting between the Taliban and local people." According to Dad Mohammad, approximately 100 people were killed in the air strikes in Sangin district. AT

According to a statement posted on the ISAF website on May 9, two "important Taliban extremist leaders" were arrested by the Afghan National Police on May 7 in the Chora district of Oruzgan Province. The two captives are currently being held by the combined Australian-Dutch task force until they are transferred to Afghan custody. The Afghan government has congratulated General Qasim, the Oruzgan chief of police, for the arrests. The ISAF statement does not identify the two men or explain their importance. AT

After an emergency meeting at the Refugees Ministry on May 8, a delegation led by Refugees Minister Mohammad Akbar was sent to visit Nimroz Province in southwestern Afghanistan to assess the problems facing refugees deported from Iran, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported. According to the report, the refugees require immediate assistance to meet basic needs including shelter, health care, food, and water. Since April, Iran has stepped up its policy of forced repatriation of what it claims are illegal refugees, forcing thousands of Afghans to leave the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). The UNHCR and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan estimate that some 25,000-30,000 refugees have left Iran since April. AT

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on May 9 that the country's nuclear program is "entirely peaceful," responding to concerns raised in a communiqué issued that day by a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council and EU foreign ministers, IRNA reported. The 17th GCC-EU Joint Ministerial Meeting in Riyadh on May 8 and 9 discussed trade and regional affairs, agencies reported. Husseini said Iran's program is proceeding under the watch of UN nuclear inspectors. But he said that the UN Security Council, which has imposed sanctions on Iran, is not competent to examine its dossier. On May 8, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the meeting he hopes for a peaceful solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, but said "peaceful overtures have not had the desired effect in dispelling suspicions and tensions," "Gulf News" reported. Persian Gulf states have in the past expressed concern about the safety and environmental impact of the nuclear reactor Iran and Russia are building in Bushehr, on Iran's southern coast. Husseini also expressed regret that the GCC-EU statement brought up the dispute over three Persian Gulf islands which are occupied by Iran but claimed by the United Arab Emirates, a GCC member. He called for bilateral talks to "remove the misunderstanding." VS

The Guardians Council, the body of jurists that must confirm the legality of legislation in Iran, rejected a recent parliamentary bill to hold the next parliamentary and presidential elections concurrenly in late 2008, ISNA reported on May 9, citing council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). Kadkhodai told ISNA the bill contradicts two articles of the constitution. The bill, approved in parliament on April 22, would have lengthened the present parliament's term and slightly shortened the presidential term, both of which are currently fixed at four years in the constitution. This was the second time parliament sought to approve the initiative. It voted for a similar bill on January 23, 2007, which the Guardians Council rejected as unconstitutional on February 12, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 10. The bill might go to the Expediency Council, a political arbitration body, if legislators insist on its passage into law. VS

Amir Hayat-Moqaddam, the governor of oil-rich Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran, resigned on May 6 or 7, Iranian media and Radio Farda reported. The resignation came after Iranian Vice President for Executive Affairs Ali Saidlu dismissed a provincial official, provoking clashes in the province, the reports said. Saidlu, a confidant of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, had dismissed the head of the Arvand free trade zone, Mohammad Reza Abbasi, the previous week, upsetting some locals and provoking violence between supporters of Abbasi and his successor. Khuzestan Province is now under the leadership of an acting governor, Ali Asghar Vahidi, ILNA reported on May 7. Radio Farda reported that Hayat-Moqaddam's resignation marked the fourth change of governor in Iran in less than a month. The Interior Ministry replaced three other provincial governors in late April. Yahya Mahmudzadeh, the former head of the state cartography body, was appointed governor of northern Gulistan Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline, April 30, 2007); Abdulali Saheb-Mohammadi, an interior ministry official, became governor of southern Hormozegan; and Hussein Saberi, a former deputy-governor of Qom Province, became governor of western Luristan, Radio Farda reported on May 7. Separately, Tehran city council members voted on May 9 to keep Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf as Tehran's mayor, media reported. VS

Parliamentary representative Hamid Zanganeh, whose constituency, Ahwaz, is in Khuzestan, told ISNA on May 7 that former Governor Hayat-Moqaddam resigned due to the lack of administrative stability. He said this instability is hampering public projects and development in Iran. "The administrative lifespan in the government has reached three days," he said, citing the case of an unspecified official who was appointed, then dismissed, within three days by the government of President Ahmadinejad. Zanganeh said officials have to "devote 90 percent of their energies" to keeping their new positions. ILNA on May 7 named two possible successors to Hayat-Moqaddam: Fada Hussein Maleki, the former head of the Antinarcotics Headquarters, and Hasan Tizmaghz, an employment official in Tehran Province. Maleki resigned in early April as the head of the Antinarcotics Headquarters, and was replaced by Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, the national police chief. VS

Meqdad Khalilpur, a student at Tehran's Amir Kabir University and the editor of a student journal called "Atieh," was arrested on May 7 outside the university, ISNA reported. The university was the scene of clashes in late April over the publication in four journals, including "Atieh," of articles considered indecent. Students involved with the publications have said the "indecent" items were malicious forgeries intended to discredit the journals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and 3, 2007). Amir Kabir University is also investigating the recent arrest of another student, Ahmad Qassaban, the editor of the student journal "Sahar," who is reportedly being held at Tehran's Evin prison, ISNA reported. Separately, Khalilpur and two other Amir Kabir students, Majid Sheikhpur and Puyan Mahmudian, respectively the editors of the "Rivar" and "Sar-e Khat" student journals, were summoned on May 7 to appear the next day at the Tehran Revolutionary Court, ISNA reported. A female activist, Zeinab Peighambarzadeh, was also arrested in Tehran on May 7 when she went to the Tehran Revolutionary Court for questioning, ISNA reported on May 8. She participated in a Tehran protest in early March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). VS

A truck bomb exploded in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil on May 9, killing 14 Iraqis and wounding more than 80, international media reported the same day. The attack occurred near the Kurdish regional government's Interior Ministry headquarters in central Irbil. A Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmud Uthman, blamed the attack on the Sunni militant group Ansar Al-Sunnah and Ansar Al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamist group with reported ties to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Uthman said officials learned that insurgents were planning a major attack a week ago when police arrested a militant cell in Al-Sulaymaniyah. "During questioning [the militants] confessed that were getting training in a neighboring country, and that was Iran," he said. U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said the armed forces have credible intelligence that Iran is providing some support to Sunni insurgents. "It's not all Sunni insurgents, but rather we do know that there is a direct awareness by Iranian intelligence officials that they are providing support to some select Sunni insurgent elements," Caldwell said. Car bombings are relatively rare in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which has been largely spared from the violence engulfing the rest of Iraq. SS

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on May 9, and met with Iraqi leaders and U.S. military officials to discuss the situation in Iraq, international media reported the same day. Cheney said that he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "talked about the way ahead in terms of our mutual efforts to help build an Iraq that is safe and secure, is self-governing and free of the threats of the insurgency and Al-Qaeda." U.S. officials said Cheney would press Iraqi leaders for faster progress on a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of oil revenues, and legislation reinstating former Ba'ath Party officials. For his part, al-Maliki said: "We talked about the challenges that we are facing in our own political process, but we also talked about the achievements of the Iraqi people as a result of the support of the United States." U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said Cheney would urge Iraqi leaders not to take a scheduled two-month summer recess and instead concentrate on passing legislation. "For the Iraqi parliament to take a two-month vacation in summer is impossible to understand," Crocker said. SS

Three Iraqi journalists and their driver were killed by unknown gunmen on May 9 in the northern city of Kirkuk, international media reported the same day. Local police officials said the bodies of all four men had deep slash marks across their face and limbs, an indication that they may have been tortured before being killed. The three journalists were identified by KUNA as Ra'ad Matashir, chief of the Iraqi Writers' Union in Kirkuk, chairman of the Ra'ad Media Corporation, and chief editor of "Iraq Tomorrow;" Uqail Abd al-Qadir Al-Wail, editor of "Iraq Tomorrow;" and Imad Abd al-Razzaq al-Obeidi, a writer for Ra'ad Media Corporation. The driver was identified as Nibras Abd al-Razzaq al-Obeidi. SS

The Iraqi Parliament on May 9 voted overwhelmingly to take legal action against the Al-Jazeera satellite television network for allegedly insulting the nation's Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Several deputies suggested taking Al-Jazeera to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for what they said was its role in inflaming sectarian tensions in Iraq. On May 4, hundreds of people protested in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf, condemning a program on Al-Jazeera that questioned al-Sistani's religious authority. On May 6, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyar Zebari called on the government of Qatar to intervene and stop what he called the "channel's campaign against the government and people of Iraq" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Al-Jazeera has been banned from Iraq and its offices there have been closed for nearly two years, but it continues to run afoul of Iraqi officials. SS

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on May 9 condemning the nearly weeklong siege of Samarra by U.S. forces and describing it as collective punishment. "These forces carried out raid-and-arrest campaigns against the sons of the city without leveling any charges against them," the statement said. "While condemning these inhuman acts, the Muslim Scholars Association calls on the international community to shoulder its responsibility and stand in the face of the occupation forces and the current government." Samarra has been sealed off and under curfew since leaflets by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq warning of attacks against the Iraqi military and police were distributed in the city. On May 6, a suicide car bomb struck a police station in Samarra, killing 12 police officers. SS

A U.S. helicopter fired on an Iraqi secondary school in Diyala Governorate on May 8, killing six children and wounding six others, the BBC reported the same day. According to local police sources, shots were fired at the helicopter, which returned fire, hitting the school. U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said there was helicopter activity in the area, but declined to give any details. However, Garver stressed that U.S. forces do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, and said the U.S. military is taking the report very seriously. The school is located in the town of Al-Nidawat, near the Iranian border. SS